MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — WCCO has uncovered more allegations of abuse against a religious leader in southeastern Minnesota.
Susan Wilde spent nearly 20 years as a member of a Christian fellowship called Maranatha. Its leader has been taken to court, and he and the ministry are being sued by other former members who lost their home and business when they got out of the group.
The trial has shed a light on a community in Spring Grove that mostly keeps to itself. But ex-members are coming forward to publicly share their stories of punishment and control.
From her kitchen table in Canada, Wilde spoke to WCCO about her years spent in Spring Grove.
“It’s just hard to think about those things now,” Wilde said.
She was an original member of Maranatha, under the control of a leader she called her shepherd for close to 20 years.
“They just became a part of us, these suggestions that Tom would make,” she said.
In a Houston County courtroom, a judge asked to hear more about Tom Tollufesrud’s character, who became the leader of a Christian community in the early 1970s.
Maranatha grew into several businesses in Spring Grove before ex-members say something changed.
“Our movements were very restricted,” Wilde said.
Former members testified that Tollufesrud began controlling every aspect of their lives. And on the stand, Wilde said when he learned she was pregnant, he told her it wasn’t God’s will.
“That was the word that he gave me and then he said that I should start running to lose the baby,” she said.
Wilde says she ran on country roads every day for months as her husband watched, she says under mounting pressure from Tollufesrud to suffer a miscarriage.
The judge never asked him directly about those days. Tollufesrud did say on the stand that he is against abortion.
Wilde went on to deliver a healthy baby boy they named Benjamin.
“I’m terribly ashamed of it,” Wilde said.
Over 40 years, Jay Howard has researched, taught and written books about cults.
“They will literally do anything that person says,” Howard said. “That’s the danger of it.”
Howard is the president of the Religious Research Project.
“Nobody joins a cult. They think they’re joining the truth,” he said.
After speaking for hours with former members over several months, Howard says there’s no question Maranatha is a cult.
He had been scheduled to testify about his opinions in the property lawsuit, but the judge said he didn’t want to turn the court case into a religious fight.
“Cults are typically made up of highly intelligent people, people who are motivated to join causes,” Howard said.
He says cults are more common than people would think, and there are about 5,000 in this country. But he says it’s rare to see so many come forward and put their personal stories on the record.
“It’s like rats. They don’t do well in light and they don’t like exposure, and neither do cult leaders,” Howard said.
Wilde says something changed after Benjamin was born.
“People in the group would ignore him like he didn’t exist,” Wilde said.
Eventually, Wilde says she started secretly reading books that Tollefsrud banned.
“I would devour these books and it was immediately apparent to me that we were in a cult,” she said.
Susan and her kids left the group in 1990, but only now feels comfortable speaking out against the man she once believed heard from God. She’s hoping her story might convince the remaining Maranatha members to get out.
“We just desperately want the rest of the people that are in that prison, in that emotional prison, to be set free,” she said.
Susan Wilde also says she lost $60,000 in inheritance money she signed over to Tollefsrud.
There are still about 80 members in Maranatha. Tollefsrud’s attorney again had no comment for this story.